Monday, May 4, 2015

Doc in the box: Dr. Robert W. Cooke's very small clinic

County historical weekends are always reliable and often a scavenger hunt. They're reliable in that they all promise a bevy of local sites, many of them house museums where you can learn about life in a given town during the 1700s or 1800s. The houses are all wonderful in their own way, playing an important part in helping people appreciate local history. That said, there's only so many times you can hear about chamber pots and bed warmers before you start yearning for something a little different.

That's where the scavenger hunt comes in.

This past weekend, I checked out the Weekend in Old Monmouth, the two-day event encompassing more than 40 open sites on four separate driving routes in the county. Finding all of them would take a navigator or a GPS, and with Ivan on an out-of-state birding foray, I had neither. Thus, I picked a few spots and hoped for the best.

Eventually, my strategy had me heading for the doctor's office. The Holmdel Historical Society contends that Dr. Robert Woodruff Cooke's office, built in 1823 or thereabouts, is the nation's first and oldest building used exclusively for a medical practice. In fact, they're so confident in the assertion that they're willing to give a cash reward to whoever can prove them wrong. Okay, the reward is only $25, but hey, they're willing to back up their claim.

The building as it looked in 1940,
courtesy Historic American Buildings Survey.
I was prepared for an old building when I drove up. What I wasn't expecting was how small it was. Boasting impressively detailed Federal-style architecture, the structure nonetheless looked more like a children's playhouse than a doctor's office. Indeed, when I walked in, I discovered that the entire first floor consists of a reception area, a smaller side room where examinations presumably took place, and a closet. A door next to the fireplace opened to an extremely steep staircase leading to a second-floor bedroom that may have been used for overnight patients. How an ailing patient would be able to negotiate those steps was beyond me.

A view from upstairs, over the railing and looking down.
The second generation of his family to go into medicine, Dr. Cooke was born in Newton, grew up in Somerset County and attended medical school in New York. Ready to start his own practice after an internship with an older doctor, he purchased 14 acres of land in Holmdel in 1823 and built the office building. He later married and built an impressive house nearby for his growing family.

One of the doctor's four children, Henry Gansevoort Cooke, followed him into medicine and took over the practice when Robert died. The younger Dr. Cooke was also a Civil War veteran, serving first with the 29th New Jersey Regiment at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and later as a volunteer surgeon at the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. (Family history courtesy Gregory Cooke.)

As unique and interesting as the building and its history are, the real treat of the visit was talking with the members of the Holmdel Historical Society. Cooke family members have very kindly lent some of the doctors' medical instruments to help tell the story, and one of the docents almost gleefully explained their use (tonsil snipper, anyone?).

Situated near the corner of McCampbell and Holmdel-Middletown Roads, the building was actually moved a few years ago to accommodate the construction of a McMansion development. It's now safe on the grounds of the Village Elementary School and listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places, hopefully preserving its place in history permanently.

Likewise, the historical society folks seem genuinely excited by this little gem they saved, and eager to discover more of its story. I had to wonder why Dr. Cooke had built a totally separate building for his practice, rather than designating a room or two in his house to see patients, as some doctors do today. Had he, perhaps, actually lived in the building before he got married? And had any of the building served as a de facto post office during the 19 years the elder doctor was Holmdel postmaster? The folks I met there had their own theories, but the facts are still to be proven. Like any great piece of local history, the story of Dr. Cooke's office continues to develop.

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